top of page
  • NYS Writers Institute

Poetry Friday: On the occasion of John Ashbery's birthday

We celebrate the birthday of John Ashbery (1927-2017) today with his poem "They Knew What They Wanted."

John Ashbery at his Hudson home (undated photo)

John Ashbery has been awarded virtually every conceivable literary prize. In 1976, he became the only writer to win the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award in the same year, for his collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.

Poster for John Ashbery's 1997 visit to the NYS Writers Institute

Ashbery was named New York State Poet in 2001 -- the same year Kurt Vonnegut was named New York State Author -- at a special ceremony at the NYS Capitol in 2001 and his work has been translated into more than twenty-five languages.

"I don't quite understand about understanding poetry," he said in an interview with Bryan Appleyard in The Times (UK) in 1984. "I experience poems with pleasure: whether I understand them or not I'm not quite sure. I don't want to read something I already know or which is going to slide down easily: there has to be some crunch, a certain amount of resilience."

In "The 10 Best John Ashbery Poems," (Publishers Weekly, Jun 16, 2017), Karin Roffman offered her thoughts on "They Knew What They Wanted."

The poem is a cento, a form made up entirely of quotations. This one consists exclusively of movie titles that begin with “They,” a list both absurd and surprisingly coherent. Ashbery wrote the poem a decade ago during a period when he was indulging in Turner Classic Movies and busy making collages, something he had started doing for fun in college.

These whimsical pieces look like visual poems; this cento is also a kind of poetic collage with so many different movie references stuck together.

A movie buff from an early age ('The Lonedale Operator' recounts his very first movie-going experience as a kindergartner), Ashbery’s delight in film titles, character names, witty dialogue and even minor plot points has infiltrated his poetry since he was eight.

They Knew What They Wanted

by John Ashbery

They all kissed the bride. They all laughed. They came from beyond space. They came by night.

They came to a city. They came to blow up America. They came to rob Las Vegas. They dare not love.

They died with their boots on. They shoot horses, don’t they? They go boom. They got me covered.

They flew alone. They gave him a gun. They just had to get married. They live. They loved life.

They live by night. They drive by night. They knew Mr Knight. They were expendable.

They met in Argentina. They met in Bombay. They met in the dark. They might be giants.

They made me a fugitive. They made me a criminal. They only kill their masters. They shall have music.

They were sisters. They still call me Bruce. They won’t believe me. They won’t forget.

First published in Planisphere: New Poems (Ecco; 2009)

Karin Roffman has published essays on John Ashbery and wrote The Songs We Know Best: John Ashbery's Early Life (2017), the first in-depth biography of one of the 20th century's greatest poets. Learn more about John Ashbery at


bottom of page